Frank Black at Club Helsinki
Wednesday, October 15 2014
At the Wall Street house, I succeeded in dismantling the last of the box around the radiator that intrudes partially into it. In disassembling that box, I noticed that its interior had a sloped roof with the highest part at the opening facing the bottom of the stairs. Presumably this had been designed to direct heat out of the box and up the stairs. As for all the insulation that had been placed between the walls of the box, I dumped it in the attic upstairs. Meanwhile outside, Eric had given up on the paint that had been proved easy to peel and had begun sanding it off the offending parts of the aluminum siding, beginning on the south-facing wall.
Back at the house, Deborah arrived at a little after 5:30 and rode with Gretchen and me up to Hudson, where we'd be seeing a solo performance of Frank Black (the main weirdo genuius behind the seminal indie rock band the Pixies). First, though, we had dinner at Mexican Radio. Deborah and I both ordered the Crossroads IPA (pretty good) while Gretchen had a girlier red sangria. We started with an order of fries with guacamole and melted vegan cheese (Daiya?) on it and it was surprisingly divine. In addition to that, we only ordered two main courses: one cheesy seitan-rich deep-fried burrito for me, and some kind of plantain dish split between Gretchen and Deborah. When we left the place, I could tell I'd eaten too much.
After almost forgetting the marijuana that one of us had brought (there's a perfect place for smoking it in a parking lot across the street), we walked into the venue, Club Helskini. Gretchen and I had never been in this, the new location of Club Helsinki, though we'd seen someone named Michæl Powers at their old location in Great Barrington nine and a half years ago. The new Club Helsinki has a swanky look to it (in keeping with the advancing gentrification of Hudson, which has proceeded noticeably since I'd last been there). There's a fairly large bar which spills into the a sloped auditorium outfitted with dining tables on a series of tiers. It's laid out so that the only comfortable way to see a band there is with dinner. When we arrived, Gretchen as woman who was directing traffic what our seating options were given that we'd already had dinner and were just there for the show. She said that the only way to get a table was for all of us to order a dinner, so that was out of the question. Short of that, she said that there was "a concrete bench" down near the stage. She sold it precisely like that, as if it had been purpose-built to be a possible-but-decidedly-uncomfortable place to watch the show. "You know, we would've eaten here," Gretchen said, "but we're all vegans and there is nothing on the menu for us." The woman replied that there was a whole vegan menu, and a gluten free menu as well. Gretchen hadn't seen any such thing on the website, so, after we'd taken our spot on that concrete bench (there was a thin cushion on it and it had a good view of the stage), she went to investigate. She found that there was no vegan menu. There was, however, a single vegan menu item on the main menu involving farro, risotto, and butternut squash (something none of us would ever order). Gretchen then tracked down that woman who had spoken of the "vegan menu," and told her the result of her research. "And your point is?" asked the woman rudely. Unfazed, Gretchen explained that Club Helsinki was likely missing out on a lot of business from vegans such as her due to the pathetic and undiverse nature of their vegan options.
When we arrived, there was a guy on stage named Reid Paley performing fairly conventional blue-based singer-guitarist stuff, often with a Tom Waits affectation. It was not very good, though apparently Paley often opens with and performs with Frank Black. This led Gretchen to turn to me and say, "They must've gone through something terrible together. Or else Frank sold him some bad acid [and is forever in his debt]."
During Reid's performance, my overeating led to a terrible case of acid indigestion. Normally I'd pop an antacid, but they were far away on Warren Street in the car's glove compartment. In the past I've found that the only relief from heartburn when I don't have antacids is to force myself to go numero dos. Something about defecation moves everything in the intestine down a rung, including whatever is sloshing into the esophagus. On my second attempt, I found the men's room and took a prolonged residence on one of the two thrones. Happily, almost nobody came in. And the restroom was stately and clean. Reid Paley didn't sound any better coming through the walls. Also, his guitar sounded badly in need of a tuning, and I don't think that was deliberate.
After Paley left the stage, another guy who was not Frank Black played a set. It was Tommy Stinson, bassist for the Replacements (and also, surprisingly, Guns 'n' Roses). Instead of playing a bass, though, he did the singer-guitarist thing, this time with a voice that sounded uncomfortably like Bob Dylan. For many of the songs, he was joined on stage by a keyboard player who was perhaps a bit too into the mediocre songs. There was maybe one song that was okay, but it wasn't what we'd paid money to see. Gretchen was particularly disappointed that all of these opening acts had pushed Frank Black's start beyond 10:30.
Eventually Frank Black took the stage. He's never been much to look at, but the dude is not aging gracefully. These days he's got a prodigious gut that probably gets in the way of rocking the fuck out. As with his opening acts, Frank Black did the singer-guitarist thing, though there was clearly a qualitative difference in the level of talent he had at his disposal. For starters, there's his voice, which, once sufficiently warmed-up, has a plasticity and inexhaustibility full of surprises and quirks. Then there's also the way he plays his guitar. What are those chords? How does he find ways to make every one of them dissonant? (And it wasn't from the guitar being out of tune.) I'm familiar with the Pixies' catalog but not as much with Frank Black's solo work. I recognized maybe five of his Pixies songs as well as a Frank Black song. Gretchen was especially happy when he performed "Where Is My Mind." She loves the line, "Except the little fish." In between songs, there were occasional little stories, including one about how his main acoustic guitar had originally belonged to a homeless man. Another, introducing the song "I Heard Ramona Sing," was about the time Facebook suggested that he send a friend request to Mikey Ramone. The crowd was a little punchy, with someone heckling the beginning of one of his stories with, "You've told that one before." "Welcome to show biz," Black replied.
Frank Black's main contribution to music was his insight regarding contrast. Something that is loud sounds even louder if it preceded by something quiet. The use of such dynamics was one of several innovations in the music of the Pixies, and descendant forms of music (such as the Seattle sound of the 1990s and all alternative rock today) make heavy use of this insight. For a great example of Frank Black maximizing dynamics in a single song, watch this performance of "Los Angles" on Youtube. Tonight he even exploited dynamics between songs, performing two "songs" as spoken word pieces, using no instruments at all. Frank Black is such a weirdo; during one of those spoken word pieces, he drew and wrote on his face in charcoal, ending with "666" on his forehead (though he was too sweaty for it to stick). As an encore, his buddy Reid Paley joined him on stage and their voices together actually sounded good.
A light rain was falling as we walked from Club Helsinki over to where the car was parked off Warren Street. By the time Gretchen had driven us to the Thruway, a torrential downpour was falling, considerably lengthening the time spent driving home. On the way, Deborah asked me if there was any way one could accidentally friend someone on Facebook. "Definitely," I said, and then pointed out how imprecise a smartphone UI can be. And it's not as though Facebook makes you confirm the process of friending someone. It can happen without you knowing it happened. I suggested calling this process "butt friending," a derivative of "butt dialing."
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